Hungarian Minister of State for Social Inclusion Zoltan Balog Discusses Roma Strategy

Hungary's Minister of State for Social Inclusion Zoltan Balog spoke about Hungary's Roma strategy at a CEU public lecture on March 29. CEU President and Rector John Shattuck noted that in addition to the role Balog plays in his government position, he is “a thoughtful and astute commentator and theorist.”

Balog, who is responsible for the Hungarian government’s Roma strategy, defines the issue as both a human rights matter and a social and economic imperative. Speaking in his native Hungarian, Balog characterized the Roma situation as a “disaster,” with 90 percent of Hungary’s 1.2 million Roma living in deep poverty. The average life span of Hungarian Roma, he said, is 10 years shorter than that of other Hungarians—which is already six years shorter, on average, than that of non-Roma Europeans. 

Balog pointed out a disturbing development. When the Soviet-style economy collapsed in the late 1980s, he said, Hungary lost 1.5 million jobs, pushing the unemployment rate for Roma men from 15 percent to 80 percent today. He added that the effects of the country's overall unemployment rate have led to culture clashes. “One of the major reasons for conflict is that the non-Roma Hungarian middle classes have shifted down to where the Roma have always existed,” Balog said. “And at the same time, the Roma culture of self-care has remained. I call this 'rivalry in poverty' – when two disadvantaged peoples blame each other for their troubles.”

When discussing solutions, Balog spoke of attempts by activists and others to urge European officials and lawmakers to recognize the Roma issue as a European one, not just one belonging to individual countries. He referred to a speech made by Livia Jaroka (SOCI '99), the first Roma woman ever elected to the European Parliament, in which she said that Roma integration could raise certain countries' gross domestic product by 4 to 6 percent.

Vital to raising employment, Balog said, are reforms to education and work programs. “From 2017 on, all children will be required to attend kindergarten at three years of age so that, at the age of six, more children will be able to start elementary school,” he said. “As it is now, 50 percent of children who come from disadvantaged families are not ready to start school at age six.” He reported that school attendance and participation in work or training programs will be a prerequisite for receiving family welfare allowances.

Balog outlined possible “meaningful” Roma-inclusive work programs that could make significant improvements to Hungary's infrastructure. For example, he advocates improving Roma people’s chances of getting jobs on government projects. “We would like to encourage or even obligate private companies to employ a certain percentage of Roma workers if they win a bid for a government project,” he said. Another way he believes abject poverty can be eliminated is through a social land program that would enable cooperatives to sustain themselves agriculturally.

The minister said he is encouraged by political participation in Roma communities and noted that there are some 6,000 Roma people in Hungary who have been elected to represent their communities locally. He wants non-Roma people to see Roma people as resources, not problems. “When a Roma is elected to the Hungarian National Parliament,” he said, “we will have really overcome a major barrier.”

CEU President and Rector John Shattuck made opening remarks. Eva Fodor, associate professor of gender studies and academic director of both the CEU Institute for Advanced Study and the CEU Roma Access Program, moderated the discussion.

Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel